Carrie Curcio and Brian Sycks were plowing into their midmorning bowls of Froot Loops recently when someone asked if it was true today’s college students don’t pay attention to politics.
“I don’t know anyone that watches the news,” said Curcio, a Washington State University freshman from Monroe, Wash.
“I don’t even know who’s running for president,” said Sycks, a fellow Monroe freshman.
The day before, Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., had swept seven presidential primaries to take an overwhelming lead for the Republican nomination.
While nearly half of WSU’s freshmen in 1992 said they kept up with politics, barely one-third of the current class both here and at the nearby University of Idaho showed such interest.
The findings, contained in a national survey of entering freshmen questioned early last fall, show just one aspect of student attitudes at the Palouse universities.
With 240 questions and a total of nearly 2,000 responses from the two schools, the UCLA Cooperative Institutional Research Program survey paints a detailed statistical portrait that in many ways mirrors society outside the ivory tower.
In general, the UI and WSU students are much like those at public universities elsewhere. A few more say they are conservative, but their overall lack of interest in politics corresponds with that of students across the nation.
Brian Kane, president of the Associated Students of the University of Idaho, said the students’ conservative attitudes reflect those of their parents. In Idaho, home of U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth and an overwhelmingly Republican Legislature, conservatism is to be expected.
“A lot of Democrats here would be Republicans in any other state,” said Kane, a political science major from Scranton, Pa.
For the most part, the first-year students describe themselves as politically middle-of-the-road, leaning toward conservative. Then they scatter left and right, depending on the issue.
“While they tend to say they’re conservative, they’re not holding some of the views conservatives would,” said Lisa Haggerty, a research analyst for the WSU Office of Student Affairs Research.
Half the freshmen at both schools call themselves moderate. Of the remainder, roughly 30 percent are conservative or far right and 20 percent are liberal or far left. University of Idaho students tend to be slightly more conservative. About one-fourth of the students at both schools call themselves born-again Christians.
A more detailed look at the WSU responses shows how inadequate traditional political labels can be.
In the past five years, for example, a majority of WSU freshmen consistently agreed abortion should be legal, the government should do more to control the sale of handguns and a national health care plan was needed.
But nearly one-third of the students at both schools - and nearly half the men at UI - felt homosexual relations should be illegal.
And while most students feel racial discrimination is a problem in the United States, the percentage of WSU students who don’t feel it is a problem jumped from 13.7 percent in 1991 to 22.9 percent.
“We all know it’s a problem in some areas,” said Eric Shoblom, a freshman from Olympia, said in an interview. “But in all the areas I’ve been, including students here, we all feel there’s little or no racial discrimination.”
Many students, said T.J. Dobson, a crew club teammate of Shoblom’s, “are fed up with diversity programs. It’s time to move on. Of course, they are Caucasian.”
One-fifth of the UI students saw no racial discrimination.
UI student president Kane noted the Moscow campus “is not the most diverse” in the nation.
Indeed, both schools are allAmerican. Almost all the students are U.S. citizens. Five percent of the UI students are not native English speakers, compared to 1 percent of the WSU freshmen.
“They’re not confronted with it (discrimination) on a daily basis,” Kane said. “Maybe for them, it really doesn’t exist.”
So what are the current freshmen concerned about?
Drawing from a list of 19 items, students at both schools listed their top objectives in the following order: raising a family, being very well off financially, becoming an authority in their own field, helping others in difficulty and obtaining recognition from their colleagues.
Among the lowest-scoring objectives were writing original works, making a theoretical contribution to science, creating artistic work, achieving in a performing art, and influencing the political structure.
Two-thirds of the UI students spent two hours or less a week reading a book for pleasure last year; nearly as many spent as much time partying. WSU freshmen spent even less time reading and a little more time partying.
Only one in five of the WSU students - and only 15 percent of the WSU women said they discussed politics in the past year. The figure was higher for UI freshmen at about 25 percent.
“It’s a nationwide trend,” said Kane. “The institutions are seen as increasingly ineffective and at times openly hostile.”
“Then there’s also the ‘what’s in it for me?’ rationale,” he added. “And since they don’t derive any direct benefit, they remain apathetic and uninvolved.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Fewer frosh politically motivated
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: NOT INTERESTED Among the students’ least important objectives were writing original works, making a theoretical contribution to science, creating artistic work, achieving in a performing art, and influencing the political structure.